Derek Nguyen is a multifaceted artist with a diversity of career accomplishments and personal experiences. He has worked as a writer, director, producer, and playwright on both films and stage dramas. And he is also very active in the Asian American arts scene, as he’s collaborated with Greg Pak, Risa Morimoto, Soomi Kim, as well as George Takei.
In my interview with him below, he provides insights on issues like his own unique background, the creative process, the state of Asian American film in general, and his new film, The Potential Wives of Norman Mao, which is a comedy about the exploits of a socially awkward guy who is looking for love–sometimes in all the wrong places and with matchmaking help from his parents.
Personally, I think the film would be worth viewing to see not only how Norman finds True Love in the end but also noted writer Ed Lin (who plays Norman) rock a bowtie like a true playa.
Q: Firstly, can you talk a bit about your personal history? For instance, how did you get involved in film and drama as a career?
A: I was born in Saigon in the heart of the war. My parents and I were boat people who escaped Vietnam after the fall in 1975 and settled in Jacksonville, Florida when a Catholic church sponsored us to get into the country. After living in Florida a few years, my family moved to Orange County, California to live with our extended family. I went to college in Santa Barbara, moved to LA after graduation, and have been living in New York for about 15 years.
I’ve always been interested in the theatre and started my career as a playwright. I loved live storytelling as a kid and wanted to be a part of that world. A few years back, the Sundance Institute approached me after reading my play Monster and encouraged me to adapt it into a screenplay. Although I’ve always loved film, I never thought of working in the film industry until then. So I wrote the screenplay and it was admitted to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2004. After that, I really started to embrace filmmaking and began meeting people who ended up helping me learn more about this luscious world. I didn’t stop writing and started collaborating with some amazing filmmakers that helped shape my voice.
Q: The Potential Wives of Norman Mao is a comedy about a socially awkward guy who needs help from his parents to find a wife, and it seems to be spoofing the idea of arranged marriages at one level. What was your thinking behind the premise and story for the film?
A: The story was inspired by personal experience actually. There was a period of time in which my step-mother would try to set me up with all these women every time there was a family function. She was quite obvious about it and it made everyone involved quite uncomfortable but it was really funny at the time. Of course, this all happened before I came out!
Q: The film also has an impressive crew and cast list including novelist Ed Lin, actress Tina Chen, and executive producer George Takei. How do you hook up with these people, and what did you learn from working with them?
A: I knew most of the cast before I started the film. I have been close friends with Ed Lin and Cindy Cheung for a great many years (I went to their wedding!). Soomi Kim and I have been artistic collaborators and close friends for almost 15 years. We collaborated on a multimedia theater piece called Lee/gendary about the life of Bruce Lee that ended up getting a few awards. I met George Takei years ago when my play, Monster premiered at East West Players in Los Angeles. And when I was beginning production on Norman Mao, I thought he’d be the perfect narrator for the film and got back in touch with him through the theater’s artistic director, Tim Dang. Ron Nakahara, Tina Chen, and Wai Ching Ho are amazing trailblazers in the Asian American theater and film communities that I had the privilege to meet through personal contacts. Wai actually came to my house during 9/11 when the subways were stopped and she was on a shoot in Brooklyn and couldn’t get home! And I met Michelle Ang through auditions for the film. Her energy and professionalism really shone through. I really enjoyed working with all of them and there was a great camaraderie on set!
Q: What do you think are the differences between working on a comedic film versus other genres like drama, for example? And what is the key to making a comedic movie effective? For instance, do think there is one particular element that is especially important to get right like story premise, acting, dialogue, etc?
A: In many ways, comedy is much harder to pull off than drama. I believe that the most important part of comedy is the acting. You’ve got to have some great actors who can get the comic timing and understand the humor in the script. I had the privilege to work with some great comic actors in Norman Mao. And of course, the other important thing is a good script. Without a good script, you have nothing.
Q: Talk about your own creative process. How do you specifically generate story ideas for films and then develop them into script? And how do you deal with problems like writer’s block?
A: I’ll be honest with you… I’ve never had writer’s block. Knock on wood. I actually have a database of story ideas for new films and plays that I refer back to occasionally. I get inspired by things I read and the people I meet mostly. And I write in a journal almost every day.
As for my creative process, characters and stories stay inside me for a long time before they’re ready to be fully materialized. And after a couple of years writing in my journal about them and simmering with them, I get to writing the script. And by that time, it’s a relatively quick first draft. I wrote the script for Norman Mao in one day. And only rewrote it once before filming. But I thought about the characters and story for at least two years beforehand.
Q: The Potential Wives of Norman Mao has a Kickstarter website page to solicit donations for the project. Why did you choose to use this site in particular as a fundraising source? And what are the best ways to raise funds for film projects in general?
A: I love Kickstarter! We’ve had an amazing response from our Kickstarter campaign. I like the idea of “microfinancing” and bringing artistic projects to people you might not have the experience or opportunity to participate. I love the idea of working collectively to make something happen so everyone feels a sense of ownership and investment in the project. As you know, film is a collaborative art so the producers and I decided to open up our project to people who might want to get involved. They’re like our extended family! I really think the concept of “Doing It With Others” is the wave of the future.
Q: What advice would you give to people interested in breaking into the film industry? For instance, what are the best venues or tactics for networking? What are the costs/benefits of using the internet as a way to distribute and promote a film as opposed to the traditional film festival path?
A: My advice to people who are interested in breaking into the film industry is to do it yourself. Don’t stop writing! Don’t stop getting behind the camera! Just do it. Use the internet to post your work. Get yourself out there. Be brave. Be honest. Be creative. And most of all, be you!
Q: You’ve worked with Asian American filmmakers like Greg Pak and Risa Morimoto. What is your opinion of the general state of Asian American film? And what do think should be its future direction as a distinct artistic movement or aesthetic?
A: I believe that Asian American film is still in its infancy. I think we need more opportunities to grow and have producers trust our filmmakers more with larger budgets and expanding our stories to include subjects outside the immigrant story. I have a lot of hope for the future of Asian American film though because I’ve had the honor to work or meet with some filmmakers in the forefront of this upcoming revolution. I think the future of Asian American film will be largely dependent on Asian American producers. There are plenty of filmmakers out there that have amazing ideas, great stories, and infinite talent. But it’s a matter of getting producers to make it happen.
Q: One issue that often comes up in discussions about Asian American film is stereotypes–particularly those relating to Asian males like the infamous Long Duk Dong character from Sixteen Candles. Is this an issue that you thought about in creating The Potential Wives of Norman Mao and the lead character of Norman?
A: I’m glad you brought up stereotyping! As an Asian American male writer, I’m very conscious of depictions of Asian men in entertainment and art. All of my films and plays feature an Asian American male character (it wasn’t conscious actually but it just came out that way). The characters range from private detectives, to forlorn lovers, to Bruce Lee! But when I was looking at the breadth of characters I had created, I realized that none of them we anything like me. They were all pretty macho and kick-ass. I’ve always been attracted to outsider characters. People who are not accepted for who they are and feel like they have to change themselves to be “normal.” I was developing Norman Mao a few years ago and I have to admit, I was a bit afraid of the reaction to him and if he was a stereotype. I even considered making him Caucasian! But then, I started to realize that I can’t do things out of fear and it became a challenge for me to make Norman not a stereotype. It forced me to go deeper into his character and work harder. And now, I feel that Norman is a rather positive depiction of an Asian man. I hope others agree when they see the film!
More information about The Potential Wives of Norman Mao is found below. The DVD of the film can be purchased from Kickstarter.com.